Review of The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does
Critical Essays that demonstrate the need for Effective Altruism
The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does: Critical Essays on Effective Altruism (eds. Adams, Crary, & Gruen) puts me in mind of Bastiat’s Candlestick Makers' Petition. For any proposed change—be it the invention of electricity, or even the sun rising—there will be some in a position to complain. This is a book of such complaints. There is much recounting of various “harms” caused by EA (primarily to social justice activists who are no longer as competitive for grant funding). But nowhere in the volume is there any serious attempt to compare these costs against the gains to others—especially the populations supposedly served by charitable work, as opposed to the workers themselves—to determine which is greater. (One gets the impression that cost-benefit analysis is too capitalistic for these authors to even consider.) The word “trade-off” does not appear in this volume.
A second respect in which the book’s title may be misleading is that it is exclusively about the animal welfare wing of EA. (There is a ‘Coda’ that mentions longtermism, but merely to sneer at it. There was no substantive engagement with the ideas.)
I personally didn’t find much of value in the volume, but I’ll start out by flagging what good I can. I’ll then briefly explain why I wasn’t much impressed with the rest—mainly by way of sharing representative quotes, so readers can judge it for themselves.
The more empirically-oriented chapters raise interesting challenges about animal advocacy strategy. We learn that EA funders have focused on two main strategies to reform or eventually upend animal agriculture: (i) corporate cage-free (and similar) campaigns, and (ii) investment in meat alternatives. Neither involves the sort of “grassroots” activism that the contributors to this volume prefer. So some of the authors discuss potential shortcomings of the above two strategies, and potential benefits of alternatives like (iii) vegan outreach in Black communities, and (iv) animal sanctuaries.
I expect EAs will welcome discussion of the effectiveness of different strategies. That’s what the movement is all about, after all. By far the most constructive article in the volume (chapter 4, ‘Animal Advocacy’s Stockholm Syndrome’) noted that “cage- free campaigns… can be particularly tragic in a global context” where factory-farms are not yet ubiquitous:
The conscientious urban, middle-class Indian consumer cannot see that there is a minor difference between the cage-free egg and the standard factory-farmed egg, and a massive gulf separating both of these from the traditionally produced egg [where birds freely roam their whole lives] for a simple reason: the animal protection groups the consumer is relying upon are pointing to the (factory- farmed) cage-free egg instead of alternatives to industrial farming. (p. 45)
Such evidence of localized ineffectiveness (or counterproductivity) is certainly important to identify & take into account!
There’s a larger issue (not really addressed in this volume) of when it makes sense for a funder to go “all in” on their best bets vs. when they’d do better to “diversify” their philanthropic portfolio. This is something EAs have discussed a bit before (often by making purely theoretical arguments that the “best bet” maximizes expected value), but I’d be excited to see more work on this problem using different methodologies, including taking into account the risk of “model error” or systemic bias in our initial EV estimates. (Maybe such work is already out there, and I just don’t know about it? The closest I can think of is Open Philanthropy’s work on worldview diversification, which I like a lot.)
My biggest complaint about the book is that (with the notable exception quoted above) it contains very little by way of evidence or argument. It’s effectively a testimonial of social-justice perspectives, but if you don’t already agree with social-justice activists that they know best, there’s little here to change your mind. As the editors make clear in their introduction, their central beef with EA is that its data-driven approach is:
directly at odds with the aims and practices of numerous liberation movements, many of which are distinguished by their insistence on starting with the voices of the oppressed and taking simultaneously empathetic and critical engagement with these voices to guide the development of strategies for responding to suffering. (p. xxvii)
If it’s not obvious to you that oppressed communities know best how to promote animal welfare, well, you’re just a bad person, I guess.
The editors next lament that EA funders’ willingness to fund “care work” on animal sanctuaries is conditional on the sanctuaries doing further indirect good (e.g. by inspiring visitors to subsequently support other effective animal charities), because the direct benefit is so small in scale compared to other efforts. The editors object:
This is not a way of registering the value of care, empathy, and the pursuit of genuine altruism, however, but rather a way of denying these values and reducing them to mere means to other ends. This instrumentalization of deep values makes crucial aspects of the lives of those who bear them invisible— another grave harm of EA. (pp. xxviii-xxix.)
In other words, Animal Charity Evaluators is too focused on helping animals, and objectionably view animal charities as instrumental to that end, instead of appreciating that the proper purpose of animal charities is to make their employees feel seen.
I guess that does pretty well sum up a core disagreement between EAs and the critics represented in this volume.
* * *
Something I find especially frustrating about the volume is a lack of clarity about when authors think that EA principles are ill-suited to achieving our goals of welfare-promotion, and when they instead reject these as the wrong goals and hold that we should instead be expressing care (by refusing to countenance hard trade-offs), prioritizing social justice, or maintaining purity (via non-association with corporations), for their own sakes. Those of us already convinced that these non-utilitarian values are misguided could then simply ignore those sections. But without this clarity, it’s hard to know how much of the book is really relevant to those who just want to do the most good. (My sense is: very little.)
For example, on p.196, a proponent of animal sanctuaries asks:
As we’re marching toward our shared and glorious vision of a world free from suffering, is it truly okay to ignore the mind-numbing suffering of those we could save in order to [save more via indirect means]?
Such full-throated endorsement of the identifiable victim bias doesn’t inspire confidence. (Obviously, if you don’t save more via indirect means, then you are ignoring the mind-numbing suffering of an even greater number of those we could save. Trade-offs exist, however determined these authors are to deny their reality.)
[Correction: I've deleted a passage from a different chapter that it turns out I misread; my apologies to that author for the unfair criticism. I should instead just say that my impression of the volume as a whole is that it contains a lot of anti-EA moral assertions without sufficient engagement with the reasons why EAs disagree.]
Yet another opposes the popularization of impossible burgers (p.18):
What have we come to when we call a diversification of business portfolios by these [agribusiness and fast food] companies—which are involved, through their caucus in Congress, in the dismantlement of environmental laws, human rights, and animal protection laws—a success for the animals, and even going as far as to offer “vegan” certifications to a Unilever product?
(I would’ve thought that any vegan product could be certified as such, but apparently it doesn’t count if it’s made by the wrong people?)
Now, it’s certainly conceivable that “complicity” with agribusiness will turn out to do more harm than good, and many of the authors in this volume speculate that this is so. But they don’t really provide evidence to support this claim, so if your priors (like mine) favour reform over revolution, again, there’s little here to change your mind. And given their evident independent opposition to
pragmatic compromise “complicity”, listening to these authors on the consequences of pragmatic reform seems akin to listening to conservative catholics lecturing on the social harms of contraception. You know their mind was made up long before they came across the cherry-picked study that they’re now so keen to share.
Moreover, the editors seem to hint at the idea that their view could not possibly be supported on welfarist, utilitarian grounds. On p.xxviii, they write: “EA doesn’t have resources for fundamentally criticizing the pertinent capitalistic structures.” This sounds like a confession that their proposed alternatives do not offer a good bet for promoting overall welfare. (Otherwise, there would seem no principled barrier to making the case that their politics is a high-expected-value risk worth taking, just like x-risk reduction. It’s just… not very substantively plausible.) Only by abandoning EA principles, Crary writes, could EAs “finally [take] a step toward doing a bit of good.” (p. 246) Saving kids from malaria evidently isn’t worth a damn.
Anti-utilitarian moralizing seeps from nearly every page. One author denounces:
MacAskill’s morally repugnant call for an increase in the number of sweatshops in the Third World [as] merely the artifact of a utilitarian ideology incapable of recognizing exploitation as a moral or social problem. (p. 222)
Of course, there’s no critical engagement with MacAskill’s reasons. These authors don’t believe in reasons. They believe in righteousness.Which brings us to…
At the end of the first chapter (p. 7), we’re told that:
[failing to fund] work being done by a Black activist in Black communities is upholding white supremacist ideas about which communities are worthy of support and which ones aren’t. In other words, it’s racist, plain and simple.
The second chapter tells us that featuring endorsements from attractive celebrities constitutes “body shaming, ableism, and sexism.” (p. 13)
From the third, we learn that “Normative Whiteness is cooked into the ideological foundation, because it focuses on maximizing the effectiveness of donors’ resources.” (p. 28)
And so on.It’s like a caricature of delusional humanities professors invented to provide fodder to Tucker Carlson. Except it’s real. Apparently some people really think this kind of thing passes for argumentation.
Illogical reasoning is also present in other forms of “argument” found in this volume. For example, we’re told that rising consumption of animal products, during a time when EA funders gave over $144 million to animal welfare causes, “demonstrates that EA is not effective at achieving its purported goal of saving animals.” (p. 187, emphasis added.) The notion of slowing a rate of increase is apparently not within the sphere of logical possibility to this author. (Not to mention that the main EA strategies mentioned above would, if successful, lead to either (i) improved animal welfare, not reduced consumption, from corporate cage-free campaigns; or (ii) later payoffs, from alt-meat development.)
Or, from Lori Gruen (p. 255):
In a comment that clearly identifies EA’s inability to acknowledge injustice as bad, MacAskill writes, “I think that it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that the [EA] community would focus on rectifying injustice in cases where they believed that there were other available actions which, though they would leave the injustice remaining, would do more good overall.”
Clearly, if injustice does not receive lexical priority, this implies that it must not be bad at all! *facepalm*
On p. xxv, the editors tell us that:
EA’s principles are actualized in ways that support some of the very social structures that cause suffering, thereby undermining its efforts to “do the most good.”
That’s an awfully sneaky use of “thereby”. I would’ve thought it entirely possible (indeed, plausible) that you might do the most good by supporting some structures that cause suffering. (For one thing, even the best possible structures—like democracy—will likely cause some suffering; it suffices that the alternatives are even worse. For another, even a suboptimal structure might be too costly, or too risky, to replace. But you’ll find no consideration of such ideologically inconvenient ideas in this volume.)
Alice Crary argues (well, asserts) that “EA is a straightforward example of moral corruption.” (p. 226) Why? That remains unclear to me. But we are told that:
an Archimedean view deprives us of the resources we need to recognize what matters morally, encouraging us to read into it features of whatever moral position we happen to favor. (p. 235)
This is in contrast to Crary’s preferred view, on which only those with a “developed sensibility” can directly perceive the values enmeshed in “the weave of the world” (p. 235). Like, that EA funders should give her friends more money.
This is precisely the anti-EA volume we would expect to see if EA were in fact doing everything right. We should fully expect maximizing welfare to generate complaints about “inequitable cause prioritization” (p. 82) from those who care more about social justice. We should expect affirmations of ineffectiveness, like the following, from those who lose out from competition:
It is unhelpful to think that you are searching for the single most effective way your money can be used. Instead, you are looking for a good way to support a project that aligns with your priorities, is well-run, and looks like it has a good chance of achieving its goals. (p. 107)
Another author urges that “we all need to reject the injurious intolerance of Effective Altruism in favor of a more modest and generous mode of relating to the projects of others.” (p. 125) Apparently it’s intolerant to prefer to give money to more effective causes over less effective ones. This is the “harm” that effective altruism does. You know, to the wallets of the authors and their allies.
Elsewhere, we’re informed that EA “misidentifies the biggest problems today as global health, factory farming, and existential threats” when really “the global poor suffer from adverse health outcomes because of capitalist social relations.” (p. 218)
For a moment, I wondered whether the low quality of this book might constitute positive evidence in support of effective altruism (“if these are the best objections they can come up with…”). Unfortunately, many of the authors seem so ideologically opposed to cost-effectiveness evaluation that I expect they would’ve written the same tripe even if there was strong evidence available that EA interventions really were worse in expectation. So I guess it’s just a wash.
The Crux of the Dispute
I previously suggested that EA may inspire backlash in part because it challenges conventional moral status hierarchies. There’s a certain kind of radical leftist for whom doing good outside of their preferred political framework is very threatening. (If we can address major global problems without a revolution, how are they going to recruit new acolytes?)
The overwhelming impression I got from this volume (especially the more “theoretical” contributions) is a sense of sourness that EAs aren’t blindly deferential to the social justice crowd, don’t share their priorities or perspective, and that if this competing ideology spreads it could do “grievous harm” to them and their movement. One author explicitly laments:
the over-valorization of billionaires and financiers in EA discourse, and a corresponding undervalorization of grass-roots activists and radicals. (p. 211)
(What if billionaires and financiers could actually do more good than grass-roots activists and radicals? This thought is verboten.)
Gruen similarly laments that EA priorities tend to “marginalize some of the most committed activists and their work.” (p. 261) This is taken to be self-evidently unjust.
Of course, for all I’ve said here it might be that social justice activists really are the best and most effective people in the world, in which case all their criticisms might be spot-on. But this book offers no independent reason to believe this. It’s just one big exercise in question-begging. Again, these complaints are exactly what we’d expect to find even if EAs were right about everything. So I don’t see how this volume advances the dialectic at all.
For what it’s worth, I find the worldview on offer in these pages incomprehensibly alien. It’s one on which answers to economic questions are best found by consulting “eco-feminists” rather than economists. That just doesn’t seem remotely plausible to me, and no reasons were offered in this volume to change my mind.
Generally speaking, I think economic growth and technological progress are good. (Crazy, I know!) As Kelsey Piper writes in The Costs of Caution:
Medical research could cure diseases. Economic progress could make food, shelter, medicine, entertainment and luxury goods accessible to people who can’t afford it today. Progress in meat alternatives could allow us to shut down factory farms.
Hastening such progress, while prudently guarding against existential (and other severe) risks, is—in my view—plausibly the best thing we can do for the future of humanity.
By contrast, an eco-doomer contributor to the volume confidently predicts that:
Effective Altruists will no doubt continue to see hopeful signs of incremental, quantitative progress in specific areas of policy—e.g., in extreme poverty or malaria reduction—right up to the moment when the entire system collapses, leaving billions to starve to death and all animal life obliterated. (pp. 218-19, emphasis added)
On p. 214, we’re told that EA “has wound up promoting radical evil”, for encouraging people to consider working in the US State Department.
Carol Adams even informs us that:
Sebo and Singer flourish as academics in a white supremacist patriarchal society because others, including people of color and those who identify as women, are pushed down. (p. 135, emphasis added.)
Maybe treading on the oppressed is a crucial part of Singer’s daily writing routine, without which he would never have written a word? If there’s some other reason to believe this wild causal claim, we’re never told what it is.
This was very fun and, I think, quite decisive. Reminds me of the old slightly more polemical philosophyetc days. If I just picture the type of human that I dislike the most who is not abjectly evil (E.g. not a nazi) it's the type of social justice activist who opposes doing things to benefit the world's poor because of vague word salad about promoting white supremacist institutions. The people who, as a result of their elite status at high-ranking university departments, devise cleverly worded jargon about systems of oppression, which they use in the service of opposing the things that most effectively benefit the worst off people. It would be like objecting to saving drowning children on the grounds that it fails to confront the structures that resulted in children drowning (without giving any reason to think that confronting those structures would be more effective, of course).
A very nice reminder to anti-anti-wokesters not to become too anti-anti-woke that they can't call out these sorts of excesses, even if anti-wokeness can be annoying and bad for freedom of expression! :)
More seriously, the mindset underlying this is something Marxist or Post-structuralist that basically just says you ought to mistrust or disbelieve lots of social science, especially economic analysis or political science analysis of what is feasible or useful.
I'm going to give what I think is the best possible version of this critique which doesn't literally claim helping people is wrong when it's not done in service of a particular ideology, since we may as well be charitable:
Basically stripped of the wordy theoretical baggage, the claim is that in fact these sorts of large-scale destructive radical reforms to seek justice and remake our economics and politics are way more likely to work and way more beneficial than what you'd conclude by looking at mainstream history, economics and social science research, because the assumptions behind all those disciplines are wrong and put there to justify the interests of the powerful, so it's best to just walk away from them and distrust their findings just like you'd be right to e.g. distrust the research funded by the food industry on sugar and obesity.
To the extent that you think this route to impact is much more beneficial and much more likely to work, than our best evidence would suggest, things that keep the existing status quo going but lower the chance of a revolution working are an opportunity cost and maybe the good done is outweighed by 'ethics washing' capitalism and liberal democracy, making the harms they cause more illegible to people who might otherwise oppose them, and making it less likely that they'll be replaced by something better.
So it's just very very different empirical and epistemological beliefs, so incredibly different that they look like a difference in moral beliefs: "If we can just get global social justice (which is not as hard as it looks), then all of these problems will melt away into nothing so it's actually easier to solve the world's problems by that route, but that can't be seen from within economics because you can't to an RCT to evaluate its likelihood and people within a white supremacist capitalist system will in the absence of evidence massively underrate how likely this is to work or how beneficial it would be."
And of course I don't believe any of this for a second! I think there's tons of historical, philosophical, economic etc. evidence against it. And it is a (not fundamental but widely held) belief in EA that you can trust mainstream economics and mainstream science to some extent to guide cost-benefit evaluations and don't have to reevaluate everything for possible influence by class/race interests and rebuild your understanding of economics and political science from scratch.
And it's totally fine to make that assumption because it can be justified, but we should be clear we're making it and just say that people who are globally skeptical of these fields are like moral skeptics or Cartesian-style skeptics and we're just not going to listen to them (even though particular critiques based on class or race considerations if justified are of course good).